I've been reading up on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the UK, which has helped put terrorism in perspective.
The September 11th attacks were an unprecedented tragedy in American history, claiming nearly three thousand lives and derailing the nation, but there was little follow up. The next major attack that we've feared for the past decade never came due to our luck and skill as well as the losses and failures of our enemies.
The Troubles, from the late 1960s to 1998 pitting Irish Republicans, Ulster loyalists, against British Security forces and civilians, lasted three times as long and claimed fewer than two thousand civilians, though another one and a half thousand soldiers, police, and militants were killed.
The terrorism that the United States faced has certainly been more spectacular and dramatic, important qualities in a terrorist attack, yet I would argue that the Troubles represent a sort of univeral terror that we have fortunately never encountered.
9/11 struck the center of the most populous city in America as well as the nation's capital, and while that gave the attacks significant symbolic value, it also limited the scope of the resulting terror. I was in Greater Boston at the time, and while I was distressed, outraged, and concerned, I was not affraid. While historic and metropolitan, Boston was no New York, nor even L.A., Chicago, or Miami. And even if Boston would be targetted, I was far enough from the city center to avoid any fallout, and didn't work or live in a high-rise. Back then, I flew rarely and mostly for vacations. Now, imagine I were a farmer somewhere in Iowa. I may almost never fly or visit cities bigger than Des Moines.
By contrast, during the Troubles, nobody was really safe in Northern Ireland or London. While at first only the British military was targetted, soon the police became involved, then government, economic targets, and finally civilians. Not English? You may be suspected of collaborating with the British by, say, being a janitor in a government building or being contracted for British contruction. And if you were a good Irish Catholic with Republican loyalties, you had the Ulster Loyalists to worry about. You may not have anything to do with the conflict and just find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time or, as had happened on numerous occasions, a victim of mistaken identity. Or you may be killed in an accident, which was common since often untrained militants would transport hastily-made explosives through population centers. Any location could be targetted, as barracks, police stations, banks, pubs, government buildings, homes, and even farms in rural areas were targetted.
And though no single attack came close to the devestation of September 11th, there were often multiple attacks a day, sometimes simultaneously or other times in succession in the same location, across the street, or in a different city entirely. Not only was there no safe alignment or location, but there was also no safe time, whether there was an attack a few minutes ago or nothing for months.
The purpose of terrorism isn't to kill the most people, but to cause the greatest fear and disturbance in order to influence the people. And while Al Qaeda may have killed more civilians in one day than the Republicans and Loyalists did in thirty years, the latter were arguably more successful at creating widespread, even universal, terror. Still, the UK and its citizens did not cave to this pressure, and overall carried on with their lives. Fortunately, the United States has not been tested as the United Kingdom has, but we can still take a lesson from the Troubles and the subsequent reaction.
By Alex Olesker